Friday, March 25, 2011

High Uintas, Day 5

Day 5: Queant Lake to Brook Lake (7 miles)

Kevin was up first this morning. I was awake, but comfortable in my warm little cocoon, and the first indication that this day would be different was when Kevin walked by my tent to get the food. My understanding of the MOU from the night before was that the day would start early, weather permitting. However, there were clouds drifting by as the sun came up, so as far as I was concerned, the weather was not permitting. Wouldn’t want to get caught going over a high pass in a thunderstorm, so it made sense to me to stay in bed, take a lay day at Queant Lake, and try again tomorrow.

Curiously, Kevin’s response to clouds in the morning was to get up even earlier, and to get over the pass before the thunderstorms moved in. Crazy talk to be sure. Nonetheless, Kevin was up, and since he is not a coffee drinker, the situation was not likely to improve unless I got up to heat water. The rest of the hard working MountainGuys were up before the water was hot. Yep, this day would be different. Coffee was chugged, oatmeal was scarfed, cold oat bran was gustily consumed, and packs were quickly packed.

At least most of the packs were quickly packed. One of the enduring mysteries of the MountainGuy is how your correspondent can almost always be the first one up, yet without fail the last one packed. I was determined on this morning that I would not be last, but determination can only carry one so far. Alas, though I had but my water bladder to pack, and Oliver still had his entire kitchen to put away, I was still the last one working. Of course, the bladder had to be packed just so, with the Frisbee underneath it so that the water tube would not be pinched and the tube length would be not too long and not too short, but just right. It all takes time.

Though I could have spent a good deal more time getting my pack just so, I was feeling the pressure. It was time to go. By 8:15 a.m. we were on the trail. By 8:20 a.m., we had lost it. This was unfortunate, because off trail in this instance was a really bad thing. The map showed the trail following the northern and eastern edge of the lake almost all the way around before intersecting the trail up to North Pole Pass, which then proceeded north from the lake. Theoretically, this geometry should have meant that we could cut the corner and pick up the trail without walking all the way around. The trail, however, followed the backbone of a long low ridge that separated the Queant basin from the basin to the southeast. By cutting the corner we found ourselves first traipsing across a boggy meadow, then fighting our way uphill through dense forest along the side of the ridge, and finally scrambling across a tumbled landscape of giant boulders that filled the valley on both sides of Taylor Lake, all the while searching for the trail. 

 A long escarpment defined the western side of the valley above Queant Lake.

A long escarpment stretched from Fox-Queant Pass all the way to North Pole Pass, and since this was by far the most prominent feature of the landscape, we were never really lost. We had only to keep climbing up the eastern side of the valley above the creek that flowed out of Taylor Lake; the escarpment defined the western side of the valley. The climb was hard. The forest on the lower reaches was dense with deadfall. Promising trails would appear then disappear. At one point, Oliver startled a moose cow, but fortunately she took off, though I think Oliver was a bit unnerved. Higher up, the forest thinned out, but the going was even harder. Giant, jagged boulders covered the side of the ridge. There was no way but over, around, and between them. At times brush filled all the spaces between the boulders, and there was no way forward but by thrashing through the brush. It was hard, slow work.

Dan, I thought speaking for the group, exclaimed that this was the hardest hike he had ever done.

“Yeah! It’s great, isn’t it!?” Oliver responded, again, I thought, speaking for the group.

“No, I mean it’s the hardest hike I’ve ever done,” said Dan.

Oliver smiled wistfully. “Yeah, it was really great.”

“No, I mean it’s really hard.” Dan scrambled between two boulders and then forced his way through a particularly dense patch of brush.

“Yeah, I love this kind of hiking, too,” replied Oliver, leaping from one boulder to the next.

 Hard hiking. It was great.

At this point the discussion could have gone only one way, but fortunately it was interrupted by our arrival at Taylor Lake. The clouds continued to pass by, but they hadn’t yet started to build into big, dense thunderheads. Dan speculated that the clouds looked more like the edge of a front than a precursor to afternoon thunderstorms, but still the weather was a bit threatening given the prospect of going over a high pass. Without better knowledge of the landscape between Taylor Lake and the pass, we decided to take a rest, fill up on water, and scout out the trail without packs. 

 Rest spot, with Taylor Lake in the background.

Kevin and I went down to the lake to get water and to search for possible campsites should the weather turn for the worse, while Oliver and Dan, still using the same words but clearly not saying the same thing, went off in search of the trail. Rick chose to stay with the packs and to contemplate the map. Oliver and Dan were back in ten minutes, having found the trail just a quarter of a mile ahead. Once out of the trees, the trail was marked by a series of huge cairns, the first of which was visible from the spot we where we had stopped, clearly outlined along the ridgeline against the sky. As Kevin scouted the upper end of the lake for campsites, I settled down on a large rock to fill the water bottles. The lake level was about two feet down, and the rock I was on formed a perfect shelf that jutted out into the deeper waters of the lake. This would have been an excellent diving rock had the weather been warm, the skies clear, and no need to scurry over the pass to avoid possible storms. Kevin did find a good campsite at the head of the lake, which would have been welcome had we been turned back from the pass, but as it turned out, the clouds just continued to float on by, and we never did see any significant precipitation.

With the trail in sight and water bottles full, we scrambled the final 300 yards to the first cairn.

“That hike was really hard,” gasped Dan.

“Yeah, it was really great. I love this kind of stuff,” gushed Oliver.

The wind was brisk on the ridge top, and the air at 11,500 feet was really pretty cool, even when the sun was out. With the conversation clearly going nowhere, it was time to hike. The trail followed the ridgeline up into a small meadow at the base of the pass. From the meadow floor, steep switchbacks worked up the side of the mountain, quickly gaining several hundred feet of elevation. But after the initial steep section, the trail leveled off, and though still uphill, it was well graded. The views on the climb up were absolutely spectacular. Barren mountains framed against the cloudy sky, trees marching up the slopes and surrounding bright, blue mountain lakes down in the valleys.

From the meadow, Dan had taken the lead, step by step working his way farther and farther out in front. All at once he turned back and pointed to spot further up the slope, “It’s really steep. . .,” we thought he said.


“Mountain steep.”

Well, yeah, it’s all really steep. So we ignored him.

“Mountain sheep. Right there.” Finally we understood. A small herd of mountain goats was grazing along the side of the steep slope, their white wool blowing in the brisk wind. Mountain goats—how cool is that?

North Pole Pass is a broad open meadow of crumbled rock and small, hardy grasses. To the north, the ground continues to slope upward, and to the south, off toward Fox Queant Pass, the ground slopes gently down to the small rounded mountain that forms the northern side of the latter pass. At 12,226 feet, North Pole Pass is about as high as the Uintas get. There are a few higher peaks, but not many. 

 The long climb up North Pole Pass.

This is the kind of experience that defines the MountainGuy. When I hiked up the last few hundred feet to the top of the pass, Dan greeted me with a huge smile, his face flush with the excitement of BEING THERE. At that moment, there was no place better. It was cold, and windy, and the clouds were still threatening, but it was a great moment, just standing on the top of the pass with world spread out below. Oliver arrived at the top a minute or two after me, and Rick and Kevin were perhaps a couple minutes later. Like Dan and me, they were a bit gassed from the climb, but high on adrenaline and filled with the joy of just living in that moment.

 Dan at the top of North Pole Pass

 Kevin, high on adrenaline.

 Too cold to linger with only a rock cairn to block the wind.

It was exciting, but the wind was bitter cold, and it was time to get moving. Like the east side of Fox Queant Pass, the west side of North Pole Pass was brutal, descending steeply over a blasted and jagged rock landscape. The trail from the meadow at the base of the eastern side of North Pole Pass might have climbed 500 feet over a mile and a half to the top; the trail to the valley floor on the western side descended even further in little over half a mile. The footing was treacherous, and by the time we reached the bottom, our feet had that decidedly hamburger feel to them. We did the only thing we could. We stopped to eat lunch.

 A brief rest before stopping for a well-earned lunch break.

At this point, the plan was still to hike over Divide Pass to Island Lake. We reached the pass at 1:15 p.m., and were at the base of the pass on the western side by 2:30 p.m. Island Lake was still about four miles off, so a long lunch followed by a couple more hours of hiking seemed a plausible plan. We lunched in small stand of trees off to the north of the trail, just down from a small pond. Water flowed out of the pond through a small, snake-like stream that wound its way through the high meadow. With the prospect of a long lunch, and with water readily available, I heated water for coffee and hot chocolate, while the rest of the weary MountainGuys got out the food for lunch. Our repast included bagels and tortillas, peanut butter, tuna, dried fruit, nuts, berries, and of course, chocolate. Lunch finished, we continued to lounge in the shade in full repose. The clouds no longer appeared so threatening, though it was a bit cold whenever the sun would disappear behind a cloud.

Dan was lying on his back, eyes closed, with his jacket draped over him, when he said, “That was a really hard hike.”

Oliver was lying on his side sipping coffee. “It was great, wasn’t it?”

Pause. The remaining MountainGuys cringed in silence, fearing what might come next. “Yeah, it was great,” said Dan.

The lunch break lasted about an hour, but then it was time to move on. Old muscles were getting stiff, and there was still a long way to go. Rick broached the idea of stopping at Brook Lake, which we believed was but a short distance down the trail, rather than taking on another pass and the hike to Island Lake. The rest of us, though still hoping for a lay day, reluctantly agreed that stopping made sense. Packs were quickly packed, boots were laced up, and within no more than 20 minutes, we were hiking again.

We had left the trail at the last large cairn that marked the trail over the pass. But from that point, the trail disappeared completely. Though it was not our intention to go cross-country to Brook Lake, we never did find the trail, in part because we were under the impression that Brook Lake was closer than it really was. The map showed the lake to be nestled under the shadow of a steep mountain on the south side of the broad valley that fed into Fox Lake. The stream that flowed into Brook Lake followed a steep canyon down from the pass, so once again off trail, we simply followed the stream along the top of the canyon. Though the trail was shown on the map following the stream pretty closely, we concluded that the map was not entirely reliable—where the trail was shown on the map far from the streams it was far from the streams, and where the trail was shown close to the streams, it was still far from the streams.

Brook Lake proved to be about a mile farther away than we had thought, so we didn’t roll into camp until about 4:30 p.m. Our campsite was a fine spot at the western end of the lake, just across the stream that flowed out of the lake. There were plenty of flattish spots to put the tents on a small mesa above the cooking area, and the cooking area featured plenty of seating and a large firepit. As with so many of the sites we had seen, this one was well-used, but it suffered from an unusual abundance of garbage, including numerous cans, fishhooks, horse tethers, and an assortment of plastic utensils. Between them, Oliver and Kevin managed to pack up a lot of the garbage, and what they couldn’t carry they consolidated into a single neat pile. By the time they were done, the site was totally remodeled and in move-in condition.

With a bit of daylight left, I took off to go fishing. There was a fine little pool in the meadow just below the outlet from the lake. Through a complicated process of watching the bugs that were flying around, evaluating them for size and color, and with a hefty dose of plain dumb luck, I picked a black fly with light-colored bristles. Though I don’t know what the fish thought that black fly to be, whatever it was must have been really delicious. I caught fish on my first five casts. Three of the fish were native cutthroat trout, which are protected in the Uintas, and had to be thrown back. The other two were brook trout. One was too small and got thrown back. The other was a fine big fish about 12 inches long. It got eaten.

Dinner that night was spaghetti with pesto sauce, followed by trout cooked on a hot rock in the fire. What the fish lacked in spicing it made up in freshness. The meal was followed by a dessert course of chocolates and dried fruit, and a splash of scotch for those so inclined. Dan contemplated cooking his Chili Mac meal, but the pesto was really quite filling, and no one went to bed hungry.

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